The rise of Nazism and the advent of World War II in Europe increased concerns about collective security in the United States. In the context of economic depression, populist demagogues gained mass followings by identifying scapegoats and promising simple solutions.
Given the proliferating numbers of antisemitic and pro-fascist groups and rumors of armed conspiracies against the government, many liberals became anxious about the potential for fascism in the United States.
Influential educators, philanthropists, social scientists, and government bureaucrats questioned the U.S. public’s capacity for making responsible choices, because they believed that totalitarian propagandists were deceiving the public with manipulative propaganda. Although Nazi espionage activity was badly flawed, fears about the persuasive power of Nazi propaganda led to restrictions on freedom of association and communication in the United States.
Employing the politics of guilt-by-association, liberal and leftist activists denounced far-right agitators, isolationists, and anticommunists as Fifth Columnist conspirators. They sponsored forums, issued newsletters, and mustered demonstrations against those whom they opposed. They warned that con men could dupe Americans, that fascism would triumph in disguise. Respectable journalists and influential columnists repeated their claims.
The House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) and state un-American committees were created to monitor such activities, and subversive organizations were required to register with the government. Reacting to conservative charges that New Dealers were abetting the Communist conspiracy in the United States, meanwhile, leftists attempted to link conservatives to antisemitic agitators.
In the context of this “brown scare” (a term modeled on the anticommunist red scare), the Roosevelt administration manipulated fears about Nazi spies and saboteurs, prosecuting antisemitic agitators for seditious conspiracy, and charging that isolationists were un-American. In the campaign against foreign subversion, a coercive state apparatus developed, one that would subordinate the government’s role as a protector of liberties to that of maintainer of security.
The brown scare materialized, in part, because Fifth Column fears were based upon plausible assumptions. Memories of German sabotage operations during World War I had not yet receded, and German nationals did play a role in the Nazi conquests of Austria, Czechoslovakia, and Poland.
Endeavoring to draw the United States closer to the Allies, British intelligence uncovered Nazi covert activities in the Western Hemisphere and generated rumors about potential subversion in the United States. U.S. government investigators broke several Nazi spy rings, exposed clumsy Nazi propaganda efforts, and, after Pearl Harbor, thwarted sabotage missions.
Some rightist groups did advocate violence and overthrow of the U.S. government, and some even established contact with the Nazi regime. In 1941, a Justice Department investigation revealed that George Silvester Viereck, a Reich propaganda agent, had written several speeches for Senator Ernest Lundeen.
With the help of George Hill, a press clerk for Representative Hamilton Fish, Viereck had also secured thousands of congressional frank envelopes, which they used to mail 50,000 reprints from isolationist speeches and Congressional Record excerpts.
Nazi propaganda efforts aimed at recruiting German Americans to a Fifth Column, however, met with utter failure. The Friends of the New Germany, a front organization that endeavored to take over or influence German American community groups and newspapers, only managed to draw in about 5,000–10,000 German citizens and recently naturalized emigrés between 1933 and 1935.
The group’s coercive tactics infuriated German Americans, drawing negative press coverage and government investigators. Responding to a Non-Sectarian Anti-Nazi League report on German propaganda, a federal grand jury indicted Friends leader Heinz Spanknoebel for failing to register as a foreign agent, and he left the country in October 1933.
Members of the Teutonia Society formed the German-American Bund, which, unlike Teutonia, received no finances from and had no political ties to Berlin. In 1935, the organization was revitalized under the management of Fritz Julius Kuhn, a recently naturalized citizen who lied about his personal relationship with Hitler in order to gain political standing.
Although the Bund aimed to raise support for the Nazi regime, the group posed little threat to internal security, because an embarrassed Nazi regime repudiated it and, more importantly, the group failed to mobilize support among German Americans.
Congressman Samuel Dickstein, however, charged that Kuhn commanded 20,000 followers, a tenth of whom were preparing for military combat. Representative John Martin declared that those who sympathized with the Bund were traitors.
In 1938, thirty-eight Bundists on Long Island were convicted of failing to register as members of an oath-bound organization. Convicted of larceny and forgery, Kuhn was imprisoned in December 1939. The 2,000 or so remaining Bundists struggled along until Pearl Harbor under a successor, Wilhelm Kunze, who really was a contact for a German espionage ring.
The U.S. demagogue who most clearly expressed sympathy for the Nazi cause was William D. Pelley. Like Kuhn, Pelley claimed that the White House was part of the international Bolshevist conspiracy and that a Jewish oligarchy controlled U.S. diplomacy.
By 1934 he had recruited about 15,000 people to his Silver Shirts, a paramilitary organization that promised to reorganize society along racialist and military lines. Pelley established contact with Nazi propaganda agencies and his Silver Shirts distributed copies of Mein Kampf as well as reprints from Julius Striecher’s Der Sturmer. Despite his admiration for military hierarchy and his advocacy of Jewish ghettoization, however, Pelley’s antisemitism derived from U.S. populist traditions.
Despite the lack of any ties between Pelley and the Hitler regime beyond the exchange of literature and letters, the Silver Shirts, like the Bund and a host of other antisemitic agitators, were pursued by the FBI and exposed by the House Un-American Activities Committee.
Another oft-mentioned Hitler-sympathizer was Gerald Winrod. A nativist preacher from Kansas, Winrod had been assailing liberal theology, Darwinism, and changing social mores since 1925. He embraced conspiratorial antisemitism after traveling to Europe in 1934.
As his preaching became increasingly antisemitic, subscriptions to his Defender publication, where he lauded the Third Reich as a bulwark against communism, rose from 60,000 in 1934 to 110,000 by 1938. Winrod’s antisemitism, however, remained theological, not racial, and he continued to promote conversion as a solution to the Jewish problem.
His dispensationalist theology—he believed that Jews would unite with a flesh and blood Antichrist whom he expected to appear imminently—was far removed from Nazi ideology. Like Pelley, he celebrated U.S. notions of individualism, the producer ethic, and the gospel of success.
Both Winrod and Pelley, then, grounded their undemocratic politics and bigotry in U.S. traditions. While each either exchanged literature with German propagandists, the Bund, or each other, neither accepted any money from the Nazi regime. Their criticism of the New Deal as a usurpation of power was directly opposed to the National Socialist model of government.
Their reputation as Nazis then, also owes as much to countersubversive fears that antisemitism and paramilitary trappings signaled Fifth Column activity, as to any substantive threat that their organizations posed to Republican institutions or the development of racial tolerance in the period leading up to World War II.
Nevertheless, these and other far-right demagogues met with mail censorship, fund freezing, repatriation, denaturalization, and prosecution. In 1936, Roosevelt ordered the FBI to begin surveillance and in 1938 he gave the Bureau authority to compile files on groups such as the Silver Shirts, the Knights of the White Camellia, and the Christian Front. The FBI also began compiling a custodial detention index of persons with Nazi or Communist tendencies.
Agents attended antiwar demonstrations, examined education and employment records, opened first-class mail, and, after receiving authorization in May 1940, began electronic surveillance. The administration also gave the Catholic Church hierarchy a choice that month: silence anti-Roosevelt radio broadcaster Father Charles Coughlin or watch a sedition trial. Coughlin was silenced.
When Senator Burton Wheeler used his congressional frank to distribute postcards purchased by the isolationist America First organization, Secretary of War Henry Stimson charged that Wheeler was “coming very close to the line of subversive activities against the United States, if not treason” (Smith, 170).
When Charles Lindbergh listed Jews as among the three most powerful forces promoting the war in September 1941, the Friends of Democracy called America First a Nazi front, and asked whether Lindberg was a Nazi.
Lindberg was no Nazi, or even an antisemite, but by this time even intimations of antisemitism could be equated with Nazism. Roosevelt had already branded Lindberg a “copperhead” and a “modern Vallandingham,” but the Des Moines speech did irreparable harm to the isolationist cause.
Dissatisfied with an FBI report that America First received no illicit funding, FDR urged Attorney General Nicholas Biddle to bring the issue to a grand jury. In early 1942, the Justice Department produced indictments, under the Espionage Act, of twenty-one far-right opponents of the war, charging them with conspiring to destroy morale in the U.S. armed forces.
The prosecution attempted to link antisemitic agitators such as Pelley and Winrod to George Silvester Viereck and former Bund leaders. It focused on similarities between fourteen themes selected from Nazi propaganda and statements made or published by the defendants. Although the case ultimately ended in a mistrial, it achieved its underlying purpose by forcing the accused to hire lawyers, raise bail, and languish in jail.
The brown scare had three important implications. First, isolationism became an epithet during World War II and until the late 1960s; interventionism became virtually unassailable. Second, the FBI gained the power to investigate subversive activity, ultimately leading to the creation of a national security state. Finally, during the cold war, academics translated brown scare motifs and misunderstandings into social science idiom.
Anxieties about extremism came to color subsequent academic debates about such diverse phenomena as McCarthyism, white supremacy, the Christian Right, and the militia movement, contributing to consensus narratives of U.S. history, and the use of psychiatric theory to explain unpopular ideologies and political behaviors.